Sykes's problem of order in and out of context: Returning to the source in The Society of Captives

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review

Abstract / Description of output

Sykes’s influence on sociological studies of prisons, and indeed many other institutions, has been profound and pervasive. This paper argues that whilst there are strong and continuing reasons for this ubiquity, the prestige and familiarity of certain field-defining classic texts can also serve to produce and sustain a certain set of limited, ‘standard’ readings. In the case of The Society of Captives, there is a risk that the very resonance of certain of his observations – perhaps especially his famous depiction of the ‘pains of imprisonment’ – may serve to divert attention from other aspects of his purpose. This paper proposes a re-reading of this classic text that refocuses on Sykes’s analysis of the prison as a ‘system of power’. Sykes’s understanding of power in prisons, it argues, is centrally informed by his preoccupations with totalitarian political regimes and with his concerns for the future of American democracy at the end of the 1950s. In this regard, Sykes’s view of prisons is much more intensely engaged with the social and political contexts of the time than the standard readings tend to acknowledge. Some of these themes, it argues, are also continuous with his later work on the policing of social protest during the civil rights movement, which by contrast with The Society of Captives is almost entirely unread today.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationPower and Pain in the Modern Prison
Subtitle of host publicationThe Society of Captives Revisited
EditorsBen Crewe, Andrew Goldsmith, Mark Halsey
Place of PublicationOxford
PublisherOxford University Press
Number of pages17
ISBN (Print)9780198859338
Publication statusPublished - 28 Apr 2022

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • Gresham Sykes
  • prisons
  • power
  • authoritarianism
  • Cold War
  • sociological classics


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